For the past 30 years, Olga Tokarczuk’s poems and novels have been entertaining and provoking readers in her native Poland and the rest of Europe. In 2018 she made her long overdue English language debut with the much feted “Flights,” an intricate patchwork of expertly stitched stories, ruminations and ideas relating to movement and travel.
Having arrived late to the party, English-speaking readers have made it clear they want to spend more quality time in their host’s stimulating company. And so one year on from “Flights” comes a second Tokarczuk offering, beautifully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a less challenging read than its predecessor and as such makes for an easier entry point to Tokarczuk’s work. But although the book is a semi-conventional novel, it is an entirely unconventional detective novel, for it features the unlikeliest of amateur sleuths, a bizarre series of crimes and a jaw-dropping denouement.
Our bewitching narrator is Janina, an eccentric woman in her 60s who lives in a small village — the Plateau — on the Polish-Czech border. Retired from her job and retreating from the world, she spends her winter days poring over astrology charts, translating the poetry of William Blake and looking after the summer homes of rich Warsaw residents.
When one of her neighbors, a man she nicknames Big Foot, is brutally killed, it turns out to be no isolated incident but the first of many such deaths.
Janina starts to investigate and notices a pattern: All the victims are male and all were members of a local hunting club. After probing deeper, she comes up with the most incredible theory as to why these men are being slaughtered: “Animals are taking revenge on them for hunting.”
Unsurprisingly, the police dismiss her as a crank. However, she won’t be silenced, and so she doubles her efforts to make her voice heard.
And what a voice she has. It is hard not to be enticed by her opening lines: “I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.” Other words are capitalized, in particular her beloved Animals and her accursed Ailments. When Janina isn’t delighting us with her descriptions (flowers in a garden are “neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”) she is charming us with her curious wisdom and quirky individuality.
Tokarczuk keeps the book’s whimsical streak in check with more serious crosscurrents that explore everything from animal rights to predetermination to the way society stigmatizes and marginalizes those it considers mad, strange or simply different.
By rights, a whodunit filled with weighty scrutiny and lighthearted comedy shouldn’t get off the ground. But Tokarczuk is capable of miracles and ensures that this extraordinary novel soars.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
By: Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 274 pages, $27.